Pakistani media organizations have been operating in a much more challenging environment since the state began to impose restrictions on freedom of expression in late 2017.

The election of Imran Khan as prime minister in July 2018 only served to tighten the screws on freedom of expression and to make financial viability tougher for publishers. In the not so distant past, government controls on print and broadcast media were noticeable, but the rise of electronic media appears to have changed the dynamics of the power chessboard by giving most people easy access to a wide selection of news outlets.

Initially, the birth of electronic media killed off the decades-old business model of daily papers, where for the most part, the (nationalist) school of thought of Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq had predominated. Somehow this new questioning spirit emboldened the whole media industry and the masses started to think that their voices had been heard. Some even began to believe that they were the real stakeholders and that they had at least some say in what happened in Pakistan’s corridors of power. When TV news anchors began questioning politicians, it gave the Pakistani people the feeling that at least some of those who ruled them could be held accountable.

Such a questioning spirit could not be allowed free rein, so the ambiguous term “national interest” was soon pressed into service by the government to muzzle the press. The term seems mostly to be used to control media that question someone’s patriotism or religious convictions.

Electronic media, a source of real-time information, penetrated dormant minds, unexpectedly overwhelming people with huge amounts of information. In the years before president Pervez Musharraf resigned in 2008, digital media played a huge role in fostering democratic forces. Free digital media demonstrated the extent of the oppression faced by journalists working in print and broadcast media.

After the fall of Musharraf, anchors on major TV networks began to realize that while they had little genuine power, somehow elements of the electronic media might be able to engage the masses and accomplish the destruction of a specific administration. This recognition led to a host of new alliances between the establishment, media commentators and a host of other groups within the political class. Each hoped that digital allies would allow them to profit or to debilitate old enemies as the scramble for power brought forth new heroes and highlighted hidden scallywags in the digital power game.

Soon divisions between media houses based on vested interests and affiliation turned to rivalry. None of them realized that by aligning with power chessboard players they were actually becoming part of the game instead of playing the role of reporting the facts and acting as a neutral commentator or watchdog.

Big business watched the power plays and bought up media licenses and news channels. In no time it largely controlled the Pakistani media market. Nobody understood back then that a little market like Pakistan can’t support such a large number of news channels. The financial specialists and the government’s media watchdog administrative body (PEMRA) took notes.

The increase in the number of TV channels gave rise to US-style breaking news programs featuring sensationalist coverage instead of positive, anchor-led debates

The increase in the number of TV channels gave rise to US-style breaking news programs featuring sensationalist coverage instead of positive, anchor-led debates.

With the end goal of most stations being to get the highest television ratings possible, every station traded its credibility and ceded editorial control of information. Instead of hosting debates, TV talk shows became programmes featuring participants being accused of wrongdoing without any proof offered or simply being goaded into a fight.

The lack of substance and programming innovation – combined with the networks’ very obvious bias towards certain political parties or the establishment – on most of these new TV networks resulted in the demise of objective journalism. Over the past five years especially, even people with very little formal education can tell you accurately which media group supports which particular political party or establishment group.

The rise of electronic media certainly ousted many fake columnists and government apologists from cushy jobs in print media, but the rise of digital media has also made people realize exactly who is trying to buy influence through their television screens.

The educated urban class has gradually come to realize that they are now being fed the same propaganda through TV and phone screens that they were being fed through newspapers two decades ago. Meanwhile, the powers that actually control state policies are equally keen to influence the media narrative. In 2017, they simply drew a new line. Any journalist or anchor going too far was named as an adversary of the dubious national interest and some were even considered to be a threat to national security. Bloggers were arrested and some have even disappeared.

So, slowly but surely, the powerful interests so used to controlling political puppets have now created a host of electronic media puppets.

The war between media houses and their associated political parties has exposed just how dependent they are on government-sponsored advertisements and political campaign ads. This makes them utterly dependent on the big player on the political chessboard and created divisions among journalists. When a particular TV channel or journalist is punished by a ban, the others tend to celebrate.

This divisions and biases also affect TV viewers, who love or hate journalists on the basis of their affiliations, rather than on the quality of the fact-based journalism they produce.

Strategists responsible for TV planning and programming policies have been sidelined, as owners tend to believe that anchors and reporters boost ratings. All this has created an unprofessional atmosphere within media organizations. When media bigwigs started dictating channel policies, flawed and inaccurate information became the norm and the trend of bashing opponents on TV began. It paved the way for the invisible forces to maneuver, and the channels and journalists who are not obedient are victimized.

The government already had a natural alliance with the media establishment, so financial curbs on the media followed with the state refusing to release payments for particular government campaigns and programs.

Media houses under pressure first fired production and newsroom staff and then the big names were also asked to leave. Censorship at certain media groups has forced them to fire all journalists not liked by the establishment and the current government. It did not happen all of a sudden; it was always coming and many sane voices in the journalism community tried to point it out, yet the ratings and the joy of profits had the last say.

The British author George Orwell said, “Journalism is printing what someone else does not want printed. Everything else is public relations.” Good journalism requires principles and ethics.

It is not just invisible censorship and curbs that have hurt the electronic media – the media houses and journalists working for them have played an equal role in causing this situation by not sticking to commenting on facts and by not trying harder to be impartial.

It’s now time for those controlling Pakistan’s electronic media to reconsider their current strategy of aligning only with the power élite and to try doing real journalism instead. Otherwise, the current situation offers us a glimpse of some very dark days ahead for electronic media in the country.